Risotto makes the season bright

  • Risotto For the Recorder/Brianna Castillo—

  • A Christmas dinner of risotto, chicken, salad and homemade bread. For the Recorder/Brianna Castillo

  • Lemon-garlic-parmesan risotto served alongside homemade bread, spinach-cranberry-feta cheese salad and garlic-butter chicken and zucchini.

  • The author, Andy Castillo, cooking risotto over the stovetop. For the Recorder/Brianna Castillo

  • Risotto is a great addition to a variety of protein dishes, such as this butter-garlic chicken and zucchini recipe. For the Recorder/Brianna Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/7/2021 1:25:01 PM

On these cold and dark evenings, when the moon wears its halo and the sun hides behind snowflakes, there aren’t many better experiences than sitting down to a savory dinner of chicken or steak served alongside creamy risotto.

Easier said than done, however, because making risotto from scratch is a labor of love that requires a home-chef’s undivided attention for the better part of around 45 minutes. As it happens, there’s a global pandemic happening right now and, between stay-at-home orders and the season's short supply of daylight, no one is going anywhere anytime soon.

Risotto is a personal favorite of mine. Its texture is smooth and soft; its flavor is complex and deep, at first bright with a lingering savor that mingles perfectly with red wine. Well-made risotto can be as satisfying as a fuzzy throw blanket after a long day, or that feeling when the car’s heat finally kicks in on a bone-chillingly cold morning.

In times of hardship, I seek comfort food (what a ride 2020 was). Given the present-day circumstances, it’s safe to say that I’ve made this favorite dish a number of times in recent months, tweaking the ingredients ever so slightly with each endeavor.

My efforts began with a recipe (from where, I don’t recall) but have since diverged and evolved into what it is today — lemon-garlic-parmesan risotto featuring homemade chicken stock (feel free to use store-bought stock, as making your own requires additional work, which I’ll outline below).

As always, transcribing recipes from memory to a written form is a loose art. Ingredient portions are arbitrary, especially when it comes to garlic. As my wife, Brianna, noted during my latest risotto-cooking experience, “There is no such thing as too much garlic. When in doubt, add more.” Apt words from a wise woman who happens to be my favorite culinary critic. I listened.

Homemade Chicken Stock

Over the years, I’ve found that making stock is a sort of spiritual experience — I begin in the quiet hours of a Sunday evening by adding the ingredients into a slow cooker. The stock cooks overnight for more than 12 hours, filling the apartment with an incredible aroma. In the morning, I rise early and, before work, strain the stock through paper towels into glass bottles. I’ve found a key to making stock well is to add plenty of root vegetables such as carrots, shallots, garlic and onion. Sparingly accent the flavor with more acidic veggies like peppers and broccoli stems. Herbs like parsley and thyme can round things off nicely. Add more salt than you think you’ll need and plenty of pepper. The rest is up to you.

The last time I made stock, I simmered a leftover chicken carcass from a Big Y “super-bird” (we enjoyed a lazy dinner the night before) along with an onion, garlic, salt, pepper and various previously frozen veggie scraps. The chicken stock was a perfect base for risotto a few days later.

8 cups water

1 chicken carcass

1 medium onion

Garlic to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Carrots to taste

Herbs and other vegetables as desired

Cut the onion into thin slices and place them at the bottom of the slow cooker. Dice and place the other vegetables, then add the chicken carcass on top. Add salt, pepper and herbs, then pour in at least 8 cups of warm water, or until everything is covered. Set the slow cooker on low heat and allow to cook for at least 12 hours. The longer the cook time, the deeper the flavor. 

When it’s finished, place a large bowl into the sink. Place a strainer in the bowl and line it with a few paper towels. Remove and discard the carcass and any large vegetables from the slow cooker. Carefully strain the stock into the large bowl through the paper towels. When it’s strained, pour divide the stock into a few containers and make sure to add a label with the day's date. The internet says that stock is good for around four days in the refrigerator; when frozen, it lasts for months.

Lemon-Garlic-Parmesan Risotto

Most recently, I served this recipe for Christmas dinner alongside spinach-cranberry-feta cheese salad, homemade bread, a wonderfully savory garlic-butter chicken and zucchini dish that Brianna made. We didn’t see a lot of family over the holidays so, without the usual festivities, it made the season a little bit brighter. Serves four to six people.

Please feel free to substitute, change or withhold any of the ingredients listed below based on your personal preference. Whatever you choose, I recommend keeping the lemon — the citrus flavor makes a world of difference and is the perfect accent to an otherwise savory palate. It’s a good idea to measure and prep everything before starting because once you start cooking, it’s an all-hands-on-deck affair. And when in doubt (about anything, really), add more garlic.

1 cup Arborio rice

4 cups chicken or veggie stock

1 medium onion

2 scallions

6 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup dry white wine

1 lemon

¼ to ½  cup parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

To begin, heat the 4 cups of stock over low-medium heat in one of two medium-sized pots set on adjacent burners. Put a ladle in the pot with the warming stock — you’ll need it handy later. While the stock warms, mince the onion and garlic. Thinly slice the scallions, separating whites from greens. Zest and halve the lemon.

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in the second pot over medium-high heat.

When the butter has melted, add the onion and allow to cook for maybe 4 or 5 minutes, until it’s really aromatic and soft. Add the minced garlic and scallion whites; cook for 30 seconds, until the room is filled with a wonderful aroma. Pour in the ¼ cup dry white wine and simmer for a few minutes until the wine is reduced by maybe a quarter.

Turn up the heat to high and add 1 cup of Arborio rice. Stir the mixture with a large spoon and cook until the wine has been completely absorbed and the rice is slightly browned. From here on out, with the heat at all times either high or medium-high, the rice will have to be in constant motion to prevent it from burning. One ladle-full at a time, add the warmed stock to the pot of rice and stir until it’s completely absorbed. It’s important to keep the rice cooking at a high temperature and to make sure it’s not over-filled with too much stock.

This process will probably take between 20-30 minutes, give or take 5 minutes. The risotto is done when it changes consistency, expanding in size and appearing more like a mass than individual grains. It should be soft but not soupy. If the stock runs out before it’s done cooking, fill the second pot with hot water and continue cooking.

Once it’s done, add the parsley and the lemon zest. Combine well and let it sit for a minute or two. Then pour in the parmesan cheese to taste (more or less based on the lemony flavor) and stir again. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside a protein and garnish with the scallion greens.

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

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